Readiness 24/7 is what Colonel Brian T. Hughes, commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), stands for. To be the quick reaction force and respond to any crisis or contingency is what they are prepared for. “One Team, One Fight!” is how Col. Hughes projects missions to his military personnel.
JTF-Bravo, located at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, is one of the task forces under U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). It operates a forward, all-weather, day/night, strategic airfield, executes rapid response, organizes multilateral exercises in cooperation with partner nations in Central America, supports counter drug and counter transnational organized crime operations, and building partner capacities to promote regional cooperation and security in the region.
The task force consists of a Joint Staff and five mission supporting commands: 1-228 Aviation Battalion, 612th Air Base Squadron, Army Forces/Joint Support Battalion, Joint Security Forces, and a Medical Element.
During a visit to Soto Cano, Diálogo spoke with Col. Hughes about their focus, multilateral exercises, support to Honduran and Central American authorities, and their joint operations in countering drug and transnational transregional crime operations.
Diálogo: What is JTF-Bravo’s main focus with regard to our Area of Responsibility (AOR)?
Colonel Brian T. Hughes, Joint Task Force Bravo commander: We are living and operating in the middle of the illicit zones that run directly from South America to the soft underbelly of the United States for narcotics and other illicit commodities coming through the region. Our roles and responsibilities include conducting and planning operations, activities, and actions in support of host nations’ country team requirements and international law enforcement agencies. We are also responsible for an on call 24x7 humanitarian assistance/disaster response force. We work by, with, and through the U.S. country teams to build security in our assigned Joint Operations Area. We are now hosting and facilitating the Central America Community of Interest (COI) forum on behalf of the SOUTHCOM commander.
Diálogo: What is the focus of your military efforts as commander of JTF-Bravo?
Col. Hughes: The focus is to counter transnational transregional threat networks (T3N). We don’t focus on commodities, drugs, weapons, or money; we are focusing on the networks, the facilitation nodes and the element leads controlling all illicit commodity movements in the region. We are trying to find and illuminate the networks and determine where we can gain effects against the networks at large. To quote the boss [U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, SOUTHCOM commander], instead of attacking the arrows, we want to attack the archer.
Diálogo: What do you expect to achieve with each country in SOUTHCOM’s AOR you engage with, whether through exercises, key leader engagements, or any other engagement?
Col. Hughes: We certainly hope to gain trust within the countries. We build trust through those engagements, we build security within the region by training and cooperating with the host nations’ security forces -be it police and/or military forces. We gain trust through readiness; readiness for us is especially important because of all the exercises and operations we execute, there is a training element to it, so anything we do down here increases our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines’ readiness. We are a readiness provider. Through trust, readiness, and security, we really are gaining relevancy across the entire region.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of regional security in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean?
Col. Hughes: The biggest concerns are the transregional transnational threat networks. So, it’s networks that operate and facilitate movement of illicit goods and people through the region. I think the biggest concern is someone with a terrorist nexus coming into the region, moving through the established illicit pathways and gaining access into the United States to cause some sort of incident. The drugs that are transiting through the region are obviously a major problem, but, again, it’s the networks that facilitate the movements of whatever illicit commodities are coming through the region that are our focus.
Diálogo: Having been the commander for eight months (since July 2016), how has your perspective of the AOR changed since you first assumed command?
Col. Hughes: The perspective has changed in the fact that we have evolved a lot in the last six months. Our facilitation of the CENTAM COI on behalf of Adm. Tidd has opened our aperture much greater than before. We are sharing information a lot faster than we have in the past. We are seeing significant information and intelligence sharing across the joint, interagency, and country teams. Now, country teams are not solely focused on their own country, but are also concerned with their regional partners because they are more aware of how the situations or operations in one country, especially around the borders, will affect their countries. We are seeing a pretty significant improvement in interagency cooperation and engagements, especially through Central America. Ultimately, we are trying to build trust with the interagency because without trust, intelligence, and information sharing it is much more difficult; trust really is the most important thing we are trying to accomplish with our interagency partners.
Diálogo: How has/does the relationships you help build benefit the collaboration between the U.S. military and those of our regional partner nations?
Col. Hughes: The relationships we are building are about gaining a shared understanding of the region as to where and how this area is impacted by extra regional actors and how it is impacted by actors from outside the areas we work in, including other geographic Combatant Commands (COCOM). It is also about how commodities and special interest aliens flow into the region. I think that while we evolve the community of interest, we are also enhancing, sharing, and understanding as well as gaining better situational awareness of the networks facilitating the movement of illicit commodities across the region.
Diálogo: What kinds of results do you expect to come to fruition in 2017, and what results have you seen so far in your time working with this AOR?
Col. Hughes: We are going to continue to grow and build trust across the region. We are going to increase the size of the participation within the Central America COI to try and get more of the South American country teams on board. Now, we have Mexico on board, which is a key component as they are in our area but assigned to U.S. Northern Command’s AOR. This is important because we needed to “see” what was happening on the other side of the COCOM border, and they need to know what was going on on our side.
We are evolving; we haven’t changed the reason why we are here, but we are evolving the way we execute operations, activities, and actions in order to gain better results within the region. We want to be able to share the unique capabilities that JTF-Bravo has to offer in order to gain access in the region that we had none or very limited access previously. As an example, we had a mission in Costa Rica back in the fall, which had great results against an illicit network. We conducted a medical readiness exercise and nearly simultaneous counter narcotic missions by helping to move the Costa Rican Police force into an area where they were able to do a marijuana eradication mission. This was the first time JTF-B was allowed into Costa Rica in the past six years. Another example of utilizing our unique capabilities to gain access is the ongoing Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE) in Nicaragua, March 27-31.
Diálogo: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role? And what lessons learned previously did you bring with you to this role, especially after serving as Deputy Commanding Officer of the Combined Joint Special Operations Aviation Component- Afghanistan and the Army Special Operations Aviation Command Operations Officer?
Col. Hughes: I think the lessons I learned in Afghanistan were that personal relationships mean a lot more than a command relationship does. With any joint task force or any combined / coalition joint task force, the command relationship chart looks like a spider’s web and it is very confusing. At the end of the day, the people out there doing the missions are the people you need to connect with; you will get a lot more effective results via personal connections and personal relationships than via command relationships.
My previous experiences have helped me in the sense that we were a very network-centric organization, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, so I took a lot of the experiences that I had in the special operations counter networks fight and applied the same sort of efforts here.
Diálogo: What are your/JFT-Bravo’s priorities for 2017?
Col. Hughes: One of the priorities is to modernize the force and equipment. There may be some limited growth that would be required, but we need the right skill sets down here. For example, our Medical Element does a lot more community health missions now than ever before, so they need more preventive medicine personnel. We have been here for 32 years and want to expand our reach and capabilities even more across our entire joint operations area.
We also need to improve the equipment. We have some legacy equipment (communications, vehicles, and aircraft) that we must improve and modernize, especially the UH 60 fleet. We need to evolve our expeditionary capability to be able to communicate and provide rapid situational awareness because, often, we have forces operating in several countries at the same time during the same day and week. We need to modernize the infrastructure and modernize equipment that has been here since 1984.
Diálogo: Would you like to add anything for Diálogo’s readers?
Col. Hughes: The resiliency of people in Central America is incredible. At a MEDRETE, for example, you would be blown away to see hundreds of people standing patiently in lines for hours for medical treatments; and some who walked as long as a week to get there; they know the level of care they are going to receive from our soldiers, especially from our Medical Element personnel. In many of the other locations I have been deployed to, you would routinely see the men pushing women and little kids out of the way to cut lines. Here in Central America, the patience and discipline demonstrated by the population is something that the whole world could learn from.
We have experienced no incidents with any of our partner nations’ militaries or police forces and everything has been very positive with our cooperation. Again, it goes to the trust that has been built up over time in the 32, coming up on 33 years, of being ready, relevant, and providing the right effects when results are needed.